Tuesday, November 6, 2012
By Dudley Cocke

Thanks, Barry and Arlene, for inviting me to join your Blogfest. I accept with some trepidation, not about the topic per se, but because of my tendency to get on the high horse when a subject this broad appears. I’m sure I’ll not be able to completely avoid this habit, but perhaps I can spare the reader until the conclusion.

I’m a member of a rural theater company that for 37 years has been writing, producing, and touring plays. About midway through our nearly 40 year journey crisscrossing the country performing, we became interested in helping other communities create their own local plays. It was another way to test our idea that local art is a good way for local life – and local democracy - to become more aware of itself.

Roadside Theater’s home audience in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, northeastern Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia has always been low income and working and middle class people from all walks of life and of all ages – families of coalminers, government workers, small business men and women, and hill-side farmers. On any given night, Roadside’s crowd looks like the hard scrabble Appalachian communities of which the company’s artists are a part. By cosmopolitan standards, these are wildly spirited audiences who don’t hesitate to arrive early and stay late -- and to spontaneously banter with the actors performing on the stage. They understand the evening is as much their cultural creation as it is the theater’s.

When we started touring nationally in 1978, we unexpectedly found ourselves looking out at a very different audience, one that appeared to represent only the wealthy slice of the host community. It didn’t bother us too much at first – we were full of ourselves – but as the 1980s rolled on and the nation’s income gap widened, we found ourselves facing a life-threatening artistic problem: now with no low-income and working class people in the house, our plays were becoming something we didn’t recognize as ours.

I’d seen something of the same phenomenon in San Francisco years before at a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tickets were going for $140 a pop, and by the end of the comedy’s first act it was plain that the actors playing the low parts were dying right there in front of us for want of any response. In live theater, the audience is responsible for half the magic.

So the question is: What would it take for a theater like Roadside to have real political clout? Part of the answer: For low income, working class, and middle class audience members like ours to have real political clout.

This raises the question of how, in our democracy, the majority of us have become subjugated to a wealthy minority of us. When we talk about the arts gaining political power, I think this is the bigger problem we need to address, and I’m worried that we’ve lost the democratic infrastructure to pursue a solution.

After these past 30 years of intense privatization and the rise of a pervasive proprietary culture, we all seem to be living in boxes defined by class, race, age, politics, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Where are the commons (neutral grounds in New Orleans’ parlance) to meet and think together, regardless of difference?

Clearly, our public institutions, like Congress, are failing us, and our civic and religious organizations are not meeting the challenge. This is bad news, because maintaining their integrity correlates with the integrity of our democracy. To this point, yesterday I received this e-mail from an artist friend in Arizona: We are fighting two new proposed laws, one to allow weapons on college campuses (which defines "public" space as any space with an armed guard, btw) and one to allow guns within 15 feet of K-12 schools.

Roadside Theater, whether performing in a tent up an Appalachian hollow or at the Manhattan Theatre Club, has always aspired to be an unarmed, democratic meeting place; art, as a manipulated expression of culture, invariably has the potential to help create the conditions for animating democracy. But rag-tag groups of nonprofit artists are, obviously, insufficient. Something more is needed.

What are the prospects for a broad based social movement of the type Barry and Arlene advocate? Barry cautions Arlene that such movements often take decades, if not generations to grow and succeed. But isn’t the stirring for such a movement for justice and equality already present in each of us? I think so, if only in our better half.

What would it take to catalyze this potential, and how do we develop the public spaces where together we can work at it?

Cite This

Dudley Cocke. “Art and Political Power.” roadside.org. April 16, 2014. http://roadside.org/news/art-and-political-power.

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